World Munching

Edvard Munch. There are Worlds Within Us

Bergen has one of the world’s largest Edvard Munch collections in the world, largely collected by Rasmus Meyer from the artist himself, and donated to the city. A whole room in KODE 3 is normally devoted to his version of The Frieze of Life, Munch’s overarching but flexible depiction of the cycle of life and death. Two more rooms bring together earlier and later work, with a spill out room that sometimes contains prints. But for now, those rooms are filled with photographs — more to come — as the collection moves to an exhibition in KODE 2 alongside selections from the National Museum of Art and Design, the Munch Museum and the Gundersen Collection.

That being said, I’ve seen most of it before, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this hand coloured lithograph of The Scream, although the standard lithograph was in London. The paintings don’t travel, as they have been stolen too often. The red ink gets us closer to the blood red sky and it’s good to see two versions of Angst, which juxtaposes the pedestrians of Evening on Karl Johans with the surreal sky. I’ve seen the drawing of The Scream with multiple hands before.

It is good to see Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), his last significant work, whose cross hatched bedspread inspired several works for Jasper Johns. Munch, clearly aging, is stood at attention next to a casement clock, the symbolism of transience clear. In the background are various paintings by Munch, presumably including those he left to the City of Oslo. His face echoes the clock face. The bed is where he will die, having read Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Alongside it are three other paintings, taking him back in time via the clinic in Copenhagen to smoking a cigarette. Munch actually appears in a lot of the paintings, either as himself or as an avatar.

But first that title — a translation of a hand written piece of art, very PhilDickian Exegesis:

nothing is small nothing is great –

    Inside of us are Worlds – small things
form part of the large as large things form part
of the small –
    A drop of blood is a Universe with
Suns at its centre and Planets – and Stars
the ocean is a drop of Blood
a small part of a Body
    – God is in us and we in God –
– primordial light is everywhere and
shines where there is Life – and all is
Motion and Light –
    Crystals are born and shaped
like the Child in a Mother’s Womb – and even
in the hardest Stone the Flame of
Life blazes –
    Death is the Beginning of new Life
Crystallisation –
    Death is the beginning of Life

Here, though they’ve translated “I oss er verdener” as “There are Worlds Within Us”, but I suspect you could even go for “In us are worlds”. There’s a drawing at the bottom of the words, with repeats an earlier image of a loan male figure almost joined to rocks, looking to the right, a six laned road snaking into the distance. It feels a little The Cosmic Puppets.

There are plenty of lone figures in Munch, even when paired with second, a third, a fourth, a fifth… The screamee, even with two companions walking on, the variants on Solitude: The Lonely Ones, a man and a woman on a beach, a distance between them. Then a woman dressing — possibly undressing, but I think not — as a man crouches, his head in his hands. Has she seduced him? Was it his first time? Could he perform? One version is called After the Fall, as if it is sin entering into the Garden of Eden. And let us not get started on the harpies or the women with skeletons (the works are usually translated as “and” even if it’s “meg” or “with”).

We have an Adam and Eve in Life and Death. Metabolism, a naked man and naked woman stood either side of a tree, its roots descending into a skeleton carved into the frame. The top part of the frame is a city scape, a version of Oslo I suspect.

In Jealousy he is clothed, presumably Munch, and she, presumably Dagny Juel, and in the foreground right the angular face of Stanisław Przybyszewski, a German-Polish writer Munch met in Berlin.

It’s all a little, misogynist, but there are also lone females even if in groups he tends to the virgin, mother and crone.

What you get in the flesh, as it were, is how thin his paint is, even if he seems to paint fast. The canvas breaks through and sometime the paint is cracked — perhaps a relic of his habit of leaving them outside. There’s a myriad of styles, from French Impressionist early portraits to broader strokes of the mid and late works. The point of view is askew — slightly raised, with floors flattened out into the painting plane. And he’s not afraid to choose what might be a random colour or spill a non-realist red or blue thread into the mix.

It is numinous stuff, baffling and revelatory at the same time, a record of a series of worked through obsessions.